According to a report in the New York Post, police in New York have arrested a man who called himself Prince Josef von Habsburg-Lothringen of Austria. He wore fancy suits and walked a rare dog around SoHo, in Lower Manhattan. He and his beautiful wife, Michel, and their children lived in a loft filled with chandeliers and Chinese antiques. He spoke of making or losing $100,000 a day at the private bank he ran. People thought of him as eccentric, but they forgave him that — after all, royal families and the super-rich aren’t supposed to be like the rest of us.
The only real problem was that von Habsburg-Lothringen wasn’t actually a prince at all. He didn’t own a bank. He was a high-level FBI informant named Josef Meyers who had been arrested many years before during a drug raid. Meyers had abandoned his first wife and the couple’s children and become a deadbeat dad, skipping out on $200,000 in child support while he made big money tipping off federal authorities about the activities of other criminals.
New York City has previously and famously hosted Clarke Rockefeller—the “fake” Rockefeller — who was actually born Christian Gerhartsreiter in Germany. When he stood trial in Massachusetts after being charged with kidnapping his daughter (during a supervised visit that followed his divorce), I evaluated him and later testified at trial that he was severely psychiatrically ill and not criminally responsible for his actions. The jury deliberated for days before sentencing him to a few years in prison.
The question of why people lead double lives is fascinating. But it is may be even more fascinating to wonder how they can do it. Something about the psychological makeup of Meyers and Gerhartsreiter, after all, “allowed" them to turn their backs on their families and to continually lie to those around them for years and years. Most of us won’t or can’t walk out on our own existences and begin anew, nor could we bear the anxiety and stress of fabricating an entirely new life, keeping up the ruse with new “friends” and even new family members, day-in and day-out.
The key to being able to live a double life, I believe, is this: Having been forced to live one as a child.
In every case I have studied of those who lead fraudulent existences (including Scott Peterson, who killed his wife Lacy Peterson), the man or woman learned very early on, in the setting of extreme emotional pain, to cleave his or her deepest and most genuine feelings — often of sadness and anger — from awareness. Sometimes that meant hiding the truth from others, but frequently it also meant hiding the truth from themselves. A child who is treated with cruelty by his parents, for example, may well bury feelings of desperation and rage simply to get through each day. A child who is psychologically injured again and again, whether by loss or violence, may develop the ability to depart from reality, in order to protect himself from the full impact of those traumas.
It is these children, grown to adults, who retain the “ability” and inclination to slip the bindings of their own existences and write new life stories, seemingly without regard for the old. It is those who could not bear the truth when they were most vulnerable who sometimes remain comfortable at a great distance from it.
The strategy never works, by the way. Pretending to be a different person may keep one’s demons at bay for months or years, but the underlying trouble in that individual’s soul will manifest itself, given time. Clark Rockefeller’s marriage crumbled and he could not bear to be separated from the one genuine relationship in his fake life — his love for his daughter. He kidnapped her and is now behind bars. Josef Meyers projected his own suffering onto his children, abandoning them as he must have been spiritually abandoned himself early in life. That ultimately led to his arrest, too.
You can’t outdistance the past. The truth wins every time.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.